By BEN R. WILLIAMS
I hope you’re sitting down because I’m about to tell you something so surprising, so shocking, that it may shake you to your very foundation:
Some media sources are dishonest.
Feel free to take as long as you need to get your heart rate back down and clean up after your comical spit-take.
As evidence of my bold claim, I’d like to submit the Joro spider.
The Joro spider (Trichonephila clavata) is a large, colorful spider that can be found in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and parts of China. Back in 2013, it started popping up in Georgia — likely due to individuals that stowed away on shipping containers — and it’s since spread from Georgia to parts of South Carolina. It’s believed that eventually, this spider could spread across most of the Eastern seaboard given its tolerance for cold weather.
If you’re an arachnophobe, that may seem pretty bad. But if you’ve read any of the insane, fear-mongering headlines about the Joro spider, it might seem like the end of civilization is at hand.
“Everything we know about the Joro – the giant flying spiders multiplying across the East Coast,” reads a headline from The Independent. “Giant spiders expected to drop from sky across the East Coast this spring,” crows Axios. And then there’s my personal favorite, a USA Today column titled “Giant spiders are invading the East Coast! This is not a drill! Evacuate to Toledo! Now!” After reading this column, I felt much better about my own abilities as a columnist and much worse about the current state of USA Today. They’re truly living up to their slogan, “USA Today: America’s favorite newspaper that comes free when you get a room at the airport Holiday Inn.”
Based on these headlines, it sounds like the Joro spider is incredibly dangerous, at least a foot long, and inexplicably capable of flight. If you see a headline suggesting that deadly five-pound spiders are about to start raining from the sky, you’re probably going to click the link. It seems like important information.
I know a decent amount about spiders, so let me lay your fears to rest: the Joro spider is not a big deal. Number one, it’s not aggressive, and even if you do somehow get bitten by one, it has fairly mild venom. Also, this isn’t a spider you’re likely to find in your house; it’s an orb weaver, meaning all it wants to do is build a web outside, sit quietly in the middle of it, and wait for bugs to blunder past.
Two, it’s kind of a big spider, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Have you ever seen those big yellow garden spiders we have in Virginia? The Joro spider is about the same size as those guys and no more dangerous.
Third, it can’t fly. Nearly every article mentioning Joro spiders says that they engage in “ballooning,” which means they produce little silk parachutes that catch the wind, allowing them to disperse. What these articles fail to mention is that they don’t do this when they’re full-sized; they do this when they’re tiny baby spiders. You might remember Charlotte’s babies doing the same thing at the end of “Charlotte’s Web.” Many species of spiders engage in ballooning; it’s nothing new.
Fourth, we’re not going to see these things any time soon. Based on an article I found from Penn State which includes stuff like “research” and “actual scientific information,” these spiders are expanding their range in the U.S. by an average of 10 miles per year. We’re not going to wake up one day this summer and see them blanketing Virginia like in the 1977 William Shatner eco-terror classic “Kingdom of the Spiders.”
So why all of these fear-mongering headlines about the giant flying death spiders?
Because these publications want you to click their links, and there’s no better way to make someone click a link than by making them scared or angry. The only reason I’m even remotely worried about the Joro spider is that like many invasive species, it could have an impact on our native insects and spiders. But nobody’s going to click on a headline that reads, “Ecological impact of invasive spider remains unclear.”
And that’s the problem with real news versus sensationalized news. I try to get my news from reliable sources like Reuters. Reuters is one of the gold-standards for unbiased reporting. And you know how you can tell they’re reliable?
Because they’re boring.
Let’s look at a few Reuters headlines I randomly selected on the day I’m writing this column:
“U.S. ready to take diplomatic steps Ukraine will find helpful, State Dept. says.”
“D.C. Circuit orders FERC to revise assessment of pipeline upgrade.”
“EXCLUSIVE: Chile tax reform to focus on individuals, natural resources, finance minister says.”
You will notice that no one is “clapping back” at anyone. No one is getting “blasted” or “destroyed” or “slammed.” Reuters is not telling you that “you won’t believe” the information contained in the story, nor are they offering “ten reasons why” you should do something.
This also extends to TV news. On election night, I generally tune into C-SPAN. C-SPAN features unbiased information presented as it’s happening. When you watch C-SPAN, you will not see anyone screaming at anyone else, nor will anyone tell you reasons why you should be afraid of something or angry at someone. C-SPAN is fantastic.
It is also, and I say this with all due respect, so boring that it could serve as a prescription sleep aid.
But journalism isn’t supposed to be entertainment. It’s supposed to be unbiased, factual information, and it’s up to the reader or viewer to think critically about that information and decide how they feel about it. If you’re watching a news channel for entertainment, you’re watching an entertainment channel.
The problem, of course, is that entertainment is a much easier sell than journalism. Brian Lamb, the founder of C-SPAN and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has an estimated net worth of $1.2 million. Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson, a man who screams made-up grievances into the void each night, has an estimated net worth of $30 million.
It’s enough to make a man wish the killer flying spiders really were on the way.